Useful Notes: Mahatma Gandhi

"Christ gave us the goal, and Gandhi the tactics."

"Generations to come, it may well be, will scarce believe that such a man as this one ever in flesh and blood walked upon this Earth."

The Father of India, and arguably its most famous son.

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (October 2, 1869 — January 30, 1948; Mahatma is a Sanskrit title meaning "Great Soul", and was given to him by the famous Bengali writer and Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore) is synonymous with non-violent resistance and the Indian struggle for independence from the British Empire. Gandhi pioneered the idea of (peaceful) civil disobedience and non-cooperation with authorities without resorting to violence, principles that would later go on to inspire Dr Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela.

The enduring image of Gandhi is of a little bald elderly Indian man with glasses, wrapped in a peasant's dhoti and leaning on a stick. Considering what he achieved, he may be a Real Life example of Rule One: "Do not act incautiously while confronting little bald wrinkly smiling men!" A strict vegetarian, Gandhi went on long fasts both as a means of self-purification and achieving his political aims.

Gandhi was born in October 1869 in the tiny coastal town of Porbandar in the Bombay Presidency (currently in the Indian State of Gujarat), the youngest child of a middle-class family. His father died when he was still attending middle school, at which point his family decided to send him to England to study law when he graduated from high school. Upon graduating he did just that, and in the course of finding a decent vegetarian restaurant he would meet a group of intellectuals which included writer Henry Salt and Madame Blavatsky. It was in London that Gandhi first read the classic Indian text the Bhagavad Gita, which had a profound and life-long influence upon him.

Having completed his studies at the University College London he moved to South Africa to practise law, where his ill-treatment and campaigning for Coloured/Asian (as opposed to Black, White, or pan-Human) rights was made famous in Ben Kingsley's 1982 film Gandhi. In one oft-cited incident he was refused first-class seating in a train despite having bought a first-class ticket. In another, he was ordered to remove his turban whilst arguing a case in court (the judge considered it a mere hat). It was after these and other such slights that Gandhi decided to conduct a civil rights campaign on behalf of the Indians in South Africa, who had been brought there - as they had and would continue to be in many places throughout the Empire, including behind the trenches in WWI - to work as menial labourers under terrible conditions and for meagre pay.

Gandhi held racist beliefs against the black population of South Africa, which was common at the time. He campaigned on the behalf of Indians to get better treatment than the native Africans, believing that they were innately superior as a people and had a much more important relationship with Britain as part of the Empire. He even raised a unit of Indian stretcher-bearers and medics to help the British in the Boer War. Over time Gandhi became rather leery about the whole idea of 'race', not least because it had been disproven as an anthropological concept, and the difficulties he faced in negotiating with the British soured his loyalty to and belief in the ideals of the Empire - which all too often fell short of money-grubbing realities - and kick-started his struggle to win independence for his native India.

Returning to India and allying himself with the newly formed Indian National Congress political party, he organised a series of strikes, civil disobedience campaigns, and boycotts aimed at the British. He remained committed to his philosophy of ahimsa (non-violence) and satyagraha (soul/truth force), going so far as to ask his followers not to raise a hand to defend themselves even when being attacked by the police. This was not as daft as it sounds, as Gandhi and Nehru more than any others - Nehru called himself 'the last Englishman to rule India' - knew the psychology and moral foundations of Britain's Empire. That is to say, many Britons liked to believe they were a force for good in the world. And even if they weren't all that good at the whole 'civilising mission' thing, they were still better than the French or the Dutch or the Belgians or - heavens forbid - the natives themselves.

In being seen being brutally repressed despite having done nothing wrong, Gandhi's non-violent protestors achieved moral victory ("This is what we're really doing over there?"), served as a Foil to violent revolutionary groups ("At least they're not shooting our boys, like that other lot!"), and demonstrated the potential strength of a violent movement ("Heavens forbid we should drive them to unite against us!"). Gandhi's single most famous campaign was the 1930 Salt March, where in protest against an increase in salt taxation he walked 390 kilometers to the coastal town of Dandi to make salt from the sea. Gandhi would travel to Britain several more times to negotiate with leading political figures, and was something of a media celebrity - even taking tea with King George V.

With the Imperial Japanese Army advancing into British Burma, Gandhi and Nehru used the Indian National Congress to proclaim the Quit India movement, which demanded full independence effective immediately. The two of them, and most of the INC, were promptly imprisoned and those riots and acts of sabotage which resulted - with the movement's more peaceful leaders behind bars, many fringe groups turned to violence - were brutally suppressed. Churchill did, however, recognise that India could not be held in the long-run. Ever mindful of the need to keep up appearances, he favoured a peaceable and graceful exit and conceded that India would be given independence after the war was over.

'Most of the INC' with the exception of its Muslim contingent, that is, whom Muhammad Ali Jinnah had persuaded to support the war effort. Jinnah's vision of an independent Indian Muslim State was taken (increasingly) seriously as the conflict dragged on and his Indian Muslim League's contributions to the war effort stacked up, Gandhi's vision of a united India increasingly ignored in favour of a two-state solution to Indian independence. Thus the tragedy of 1947, which saw the rather messy creation of India and Pakistan as separate states a full year earlier than planned; the British got their dignified exit, but at the expense of a few million people who were displaced and impoverished by the war and mass exodus that soon followed. Though in retrospect the two-state solution was a bad idea, Britain had also had to speed the de-colonisation process up as they were quite literally teetering on the edge of bankruptcy and unable to shoulder the costs of administering the colony any more - a direct result of the US' unwillingness to loan them any more money In Support Of Imperialism (in the bad sense) after the War's end. It goes without saying that the East India Company, and its successor The Rajnote , had done much to play India's Muslim (e.g. the Mughal Empire and its secessionist kingdoms) and Hindu (e.g. the Maharatta Confederacy) realms - and people - against each other for the better part of a century, passing laws to 'preserve' their differences and the caste system (to counter the melding of culture and castes/classes in the century or two of strife and social mobility that marked the disintegration of the Mughal Empire) to ensure the region would be easier to govern.

Britain had initially wanted to delay independence until '49 so as to put the infrastructure in place to move the minority populations of soon-to-be-Muslim/Hindu areas safely and separately, but a combination of aforementioned Indian unrest and American intransigence over money meant that Britain could no longer afford to do this - taxes had already been raised to unpopular levels so as to establish the NHS and a proper welfare state (as per the Labour Party's promises to implement the recommendations of the Beveridge Report). What's more, the government was basically unable to print money in amounts worth a damn if it wanted to make up the budget shortfall - doing so would effectively mean (further) devaluing British overseas investments, which were ridiculously extensive after a century of massive overseas investment (to the tune of a third of the UK's collective savings for nearly a century). The new Indian Muslim state was called 'Pak(i)stan', an acronym of its constituent provinces of the Punjab, Afghan Province, Kashmir, Sind, and Baleuchistan (but not Bangladesh, aka 'East Pakistan'). The Partition occurred on the 15 August 1947. Eventually, with Indian military support, Bangladesh gained its own independence from Pakistan after a rather bloody revolution.

Gandhi was assassinated in 1948 by Nathuram Godse, an extremist who held Gandhi responsible for certain concessions made by India to Pakistan. Today Gandhi is famous worldwide as a symbol of non-violence, and revered in India.

Point of clarification: Mahatma Gandhi is not related to Indra Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, or any of the other Gandhis (of the so called "Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty") that you hear about in Modern Indian politics. Indra is the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, she took the last name from her husband Feroze Gandhy (later anglicized to Gandhi), who is not related to Mahatma.

Gandhi in fiction

  • Clone High: An animated show that depicted a high school full of the clones of famous individuals, with the Clone Gandhi rebelling against his predecessor by being hyperactive and irreverent. It caused an uproar in India, to the point where members of the Indian parliament were criticizing it.
  • Gandhi: The sprawling 1982 biopic that earned Sir Ben Kingsley an Oscar.
  • UHF parodies the Actionized Sequel trope by showing a trailer for Gandhi 2. The humorously clueless depiction of Gandhi turns him into a jet-setting vigilante who beats up hoodlums, drives a Ferrari, orders steak at restaurants, and, you know, isn't dead.
  • "The Last Article" is a short story by Harry Turtledove depicting the interactions between Gandhi and the new German governor of India in an Alternate History in which the Nazis won World War II.
  • In every installment of the Civilization series Gandhi serves as India's leader - indeed, it was only in Civ IV that Asoka was added as a less contemporary option. In the first game, a programming oversight caused Gandhi to become the most warlike leader in the late game, and his out-of-character obsession with nuclear weapons became a fandom in-joke and a series tradition.
  • The short subject Gandhi At The Bat is a mockumentary about Gandhi secretly visiting Yankee Stadium in 1933 and pinch hitting for the New York Yankees.
  • Was in Celebrity Deathmatch against Genghis Khan. Due to a malfunction in the time machine, the two switched personalities, causing Gandhi to beat Genghis Khan into a pulp before rampaging through the building.
  • Gandhi features in Epic Rap Battles of History, facing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
  • Philip Glass's opera Satyagraha is based on the life of Gandhi (with lyrics taken from the Bhagavad Gita).
  • Gandhi appears as a stand-up comic in a Family Guy cutaway. He isn't successful.
  • In The Simpsons episode "Mountain of Madness", as Homer Simpson and Mr. Burns fall victim to Cabin Fever and are about to fight, Homer asks Burns "You and What Army?", prompting him to imagine a snowman army behind Burns. Homer counters with "I have powers... uh, political powers!", imagining political figures including Gandhi, Abraham Lincoln and Theodore Roosevelt behind him.